The Underfall Yard is a grossly overlooked album, albeit a critically acclaimed one, released by Big Big Train in 2009. To the relatively few people paying attention, the album is considered a modern masterpiece of progressive rock. I'm usually hesitant to use that label, especially to describe modern or recent music, because the word "progressive" in music seems to be such an ill-defined term. But the origins of what's considered to be "prog rock" comes from the experimental and predominantly English rock groups of the late 1960s and early 70s such as Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson. Such bands have a broad, obvious, and explicitly acknowledged influence on Big Big Train's formation and approach to creating music, and so I can therefore comfortably lump the band and the album into this category.
TUY is Big Big Train's first album to feature David Longdon as the band's lead vocalist. Though Longdon is a proficient player of about a dozen different instruments, his only non-vocal contribution to TUY was the flute. It was also BBT's first album to feature Dave Gregory, the longtime lead guitarist/keyboardist of XTC and session musician for Peter Gabriel, among many others. Gregory was listed as a guest musician for TUY, contributing guitars and electric sitar, but would eventually become a full-time member in 2012. The album featured 7 other guest musicians contributing guitars, keyboards, and horns.
The Underfall Yard has no relation or connection to Underfall Yard, the historic shipyard in Bristol. Instead, the album's eponymous song is concerned with the great English engineer of the 19th century, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. More specifically the song was inspired by The Hidden Landscape, a book by English paleontologist Richard Fortey about a scientific journey along the English countryside, including some of the older rock walls along Brunel's Great Western Railway. The song's narrator sentimentally reflects on the vision of the railway's construction and the changes over time in the towns and the landscape. The song itself is quite epic in its scale and its arrangement, with the composition clocking in at just under 23 minutes on the album version. Like any great grand composition from Mahler's second symphony to "Supper's Ready," it's worth the time invested.
While most of the songs on TUY don't have a direct connection to one another, sevaral of the songs share similar themes. "Last Train" is also a railway-centric song, a nonfictional story about a stationmaster named Mr. Delia. He was the last stationmaster to take post at Hurn station, at a very small and rural part of the deep English countryside, before the station closed in 1935. The song maintains a rustic, nostalgic beauty through all its instrumental complexion and climactic nature, and is probably Longdon's best vocal performance on the album.
"Winchester Diver" tells another true tale of an old Englishman, though this one is more remarkable than sentimental. William Walker worked for five years in the early 20th century to make repairs beneath Winchester Cathedral, whose foundations were badly flooded and damn near collapse. As he worked tirelessly beneath in the hell of the cathedral's musty tomb, it was business as usual among the patrons of the Church of England above:
"the people say their Sunday prayers
music fills the vaulted space
the organ covers up the hammer falls"
There are two songs on the album who do share a direct connection: "Master James of St. George" and "Victorian Brickwork." Although James of Saint George himself was an architect responsible for designing several castles for Edward I in the late 13th century, and although the song itself only has four lines repeated (somewhat chanted) throughout, the song is purportedly about songwriter Gregory Spawton's father. Victorian Brickwork more conspicuously concerns Spawton's father, a Navy man who died about two years before the album was released. The song is about his father's time at sea, and about his stoicism as a father and the distance that he maintained in his relationship with Greg:
"Now I know who I am
I know what I mean and I know where I came from
From the sea..."
"The love you never meant to hide"
The album's first song, "Evening Star" is the only non-lyrical song on the album. It's therefore considered an instrumental song, but I'm not sure if that's entirely accurate, because while it doesn't have lyrics, the song does have vocals. They're choir-like harmonies, sung on neutral vowels, but they're vocals nonetheless. So there's kind of a grey area here in what's considered an instrumental song. Is the human voice considered an instrument? Do vocal patterns need to be formed out of words to be considered lyrical? Isn't all of music inherently theoretical anyway? Is it even helpful to wonder? Does anyone care?
Anyway, Evening Star immediately shows the album's strong sense of dynamic contrast, its variety of instruments, and its ornate, old-school style of rock arrangements, with no electronic instruments present except (of course) the keyboard/synthesizer. It also introduces the main musical theme of the album, reintroduced in Master James and The Underfall Yard.
In general, all of the music throughout the album is performed very tightly and precisely. It's a high-fidelity record, with a lot of attention to detail in the composition and the production. I wouldn't consider this the most accessible music in the world to people who aren't used to listening to prog rock, but I wouldn't consider it really outlandish or avant-garde either. The rhythms are complex enough to be interesting, occasionally to a fault. Nick D'Virgilio's drumming is solid, the runs and fills are very sharp, but the mixing and mastering of the album is such that the drums don't seem too loud or intrusive. The guitar and keyboard solos are grand and sweeping, somewhat indulgent, and virtuosic without being over the top (again, other listeners might have other opinions). And Andy Poole as a bassist is virtually unnoticeable, which is to say, in bassist terms, that he did an excellent job.
If you're one to complain about music that seems pretentious, long, or complicated, then this might not be for you. And hey, that's okay--there's something out there for everyone. But if you think that you even *might* enjoy something like this then I would urge you to find this album and give it a few listens, because The Underfall Yard is a gem that deserves to be uncovered.
The Underfall Yard released December 15, 2009 by Big Big Train from their own record label, English Electric Recordings. Length: 60:38.
01. Evening Star
02. Master James of St. George
03. Victorian Brickwork
04. Last Train
05. Winchester Diver
06. The Underfall Yard
This album can be most easily found on BBT's Bandcamp where, if you're unfamiliar with the site's format, you can stream the album for free and/or buy a digital copy. If you like it, you should buy it! Support good artists! Especially currently active ones! The album can also be found at Spotify, the evil empire, it's undoubtedly on the Youtubes, etc.
This writeup's actual writing content is original, but I did refer to the band's official website and to the album's wikipedia page for certain facts and general details.